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Why Breakfast is Better in the U.K.

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The full English breakfast is one of my great passions.

Breakfast in general is one of my great passions, but “the full English” (as it’s often called over there, to be a little snappier) is by far my favorite iteration.

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The full English breakfast at The Breslin in New York City: no beans, toast, or potatoes.
The full English breakfast at The Breslin in New York City: no beans, toast, or potatoes. Photo by Sarah Jampel

I am the hugest fan of a savory breakfast, and the full English is nothing but savory—eggs, bacon, and sausage are the heartiest ingredients, joined by mushrooms, baked beans, potatoes, grilled tomatoes, toast, sometimes black pudding (a type of blood sausage made with pork fat or beef suet, pork blood, and oatmeal), and sometimes bubble and squeak (a traditional English side dish made with shallow-fried leftover vegetables, mostly potato and cabbage). The best kind of full English breakfast will have a coffee or tea included in its price.

Colonel Mustard's Bubble and Squeak
Colonel Mustard's Bubble and Squeak

The meal as we know it began its life in the Victorian era, when a prosperous middle class was emerging and wanted to demonstrate its wealth and social upbringing by eating a lavish and varied morning meal. During the Industrial Revolution in England, many members of the working classes began to eat a full English breakfast on a regular basis, too, since it made sense to eat a large, hearty breakfast before embarking on a day of manual labor.

Today, the full English breakfast is available in every kind of breakfast establishment, from greasy spoon to elegant hotel, and certain parts vary depending on exact geographical location and cultural affiliation. There’s the Cornish breakfast, the Ulster breakfast, the Irish breakfast, the Scottish breakfast, and the Welsh breakfast, to name a few.

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The traditional Irish breakfast includes brown soda bread, and some Scottish breakfasts include white pudding, similar to black pudding but without any pork blood. Once, visiting Edinburgh for a few days, I ate a full breakfast at an African restaurant. It comprised mostly the same items as any British full breakfast, but with the addition of plantains.

Irish Brown Soda Bread

Irish Brown Soda Bread by Merrill Stubbs

Carrot Soda Bread

Carrot Soda Bread by fiveandspice

As a general rule, the full English breakfast is a great dish: Eggs, two kinds of breakfast meat, toast, potatoes, beans—how badly can anyone really screw it up? There are so many moving parts to this dish, but in general only two that really vary: the toast and the potatoes. Toast can be white or wheat or seven-grain (typically referred to in Britain as granary), can come buttered or not (though if it comes un-buttered, butter will always accompany the breakfast), and can come in a huge variety of thickness. Potatoes show up usually either as small roasted potatoes with various herbs, or as hash browns.

The eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes, however, are essentially always the same, so any deviations from the norm can either make or break the experience.

Just six of my many full English breakfasts.

My favorite digression in my exploration of the English breakfast was in the beans at one establishment. In general, the typical English breakfast beans are your regulation canned baked beans. Now don’t get me wrong—I love those beans. Whatever sauce or combination of sauces they’re canned with is a little bit sweet, so mopping up the bean sauce with toast makes for some nice dessert-esque bites.

The alternate kind of beans I experienced—just once—were butter beans, much larger and slightly firmer than baked beans. They were not sweet, and felt a little more healthful than baked beans because they were prepared in a much lighter saucer. Although no one goes to a full English breakfast expecting to consume a plate of healthy-feeling food, of course, the change was refreshing. The ability to add spinach to another English breakfast for an additional charge of £1.75 (about $2.50) made for a similarly positive experience.

Baked Beans
Baked Beans

But let me tell you about the best English breakfast I ever ate. It was the best not only because of what was on my plate, but because of what was not—namely, there were no grilled tomatoes. Even as someone who does not like tomatoes in general, I think I can safely say that grilling tomatoes serves no positive purpose in the world. If a tomato is good, it should be served simply and raw. The grilling not only intends to disguise bad tomatoes but is just a bad way to prepare a theoretically fresh vegetable.

So anyway, my best English breakfast. For one thing, it was cheap. Most full breakfasts run for around 8 or 9 pounds, plus 2 to 3 for a drink. You generally can’t pay less than 10 pounds (that’s about 15 dollars) for a full breakfast plus drink, which is kind of a lot. My breakfast plus drink, when I ate The Best English Breakfast Ever, was 8.80 in pounds (the breakfast alone was 5.50, which is about 25% cheaper than average). And that might seem like a negligible difference, but when you eat as much breakfast as I do, it really adds up.

11 of Our Favorite Fried Eggs

11 of Our Favorite Fried Eggs by Hollis Miller

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How to Make Perfect Scrambled Eggs

How to Make Perfect Scrambled Eggs by Brette Warshaw

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So it was cheap, one good thing. I had a choice of fried or scrambled eggs, another good thing. The best thing was that the regular full English on the menu came with eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, and toast, but with the option to substitute baked beans for any one of the above items. So of course I substituted beans for the tomatoes. At no extra charge!

What I have learned from my quest to find the best full English breakfast in Oxford, where I was based for most of the ten months I spent in the U.K. over the past three years, is that choices are really the thing that can make a full breakfast great.

The option of fried or scrambled eggs? Great.
The option to substitute baked beans for tomatoes, or to add some spinach to my dish? Great.
The option of coffee or tea, especially when included in the price? The greatest.

I won’t make the claim that starting your day with a full English ensures a great day, but it at least ensures a great start.

Your Favorite Savory Breakfasts from Around the World
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Your Favorite Savory Breakfasts from Around the World

Do you go sweet or savory at breakfast time? Tell us in the comments below!